Originally taken from a 2006 offline blog by Linda Bellos, and posted in 2011 on the TAOBQ (The African Or Black Question) blog, this is an updated version edited by TAOBQ lead Kwaku for terminology and identity discourse, particularly as we move from Black History Month @ 30 to marking African Jubilee Year 1987-88 @ 30 in 2018.
Tuesday, March 21, 2006
The Term Black And Asian – A Short History
In the circles in which I mix, there has been a bit of a buzz in the air about the term Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME). It is new and, as far as anyone can tell, it does not seem to have been the subject of much consultation. The London Development Agency and the Greater London Authority have adopted the term, so we must assume that it is official.
I have a problem with the new term on several counts. Firstly, it has the potential to be divisive, especially without the consultation or explanation. Secondly, it is long, and is likely to be challenged by any other group that does not feel included. For example, the growing Chinese community may feel excluded. Perhaps most importantly, BAME begins to set up a hierarchy.
The solution to a society in which communities develop and change is not to make the list longer, but to come up with a term that is inclusive of all people who are subject to racism because of their race, nationality, ethnic group or their colour.
The term Ethnic Minority would do it, but this would require some of us to be confident enough to feel we can compete with other groups and not be marginalised. Given where we are now in 2006, the community of African and African Caribbean people is well established and largely accepted by British society. Numerically there are many more people of Asian than African origin. But this has never been a problem or an issue when we had a politics which was about fighting racism. But if we have moved on to a new phase in which we compete with each other to demand separate representation because an Asian person does not (or cannot) represent an African person and vice verse, than we are in trouble.
People of African and Asian heritage have long worked together in the UK in the common struggle against racism, imperialism and oppression. Even before the Pan-African Conference, held in London in 1900, there were countless recorded examples of unity and solidarity between those seeking liberation from British rule in the Caribbean, India (as was then, consisting of today’s India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) and Africa.
More recently, especially in the late 1960’s through to the mid 1980’s, we progressives called ourselves Black. This was not only because the word was reclaimed as a positive, but we also knew that we shared a common experience of racism because of our skin colour. This much was largely true of struggles against racism and other manifestations of discrimination.
When we started Black Sections in the Labour Party in 1983, we saw it as a struggle for representation for African, Caribbean and Asian voters and members of the Labour Party***. We worked successfully to increase our presentation at both local and national level. And before history gets rewritten, let it be remembered that Dianne Abbott, Keith Vaz, Paul Boateng and the late (great) Bernie Grant were selected for winnable seats directly as a result of our campaign, as were thousands of councillors from Rochdale to Lewisham.
But, as soon as we began to be successful, we saw two major onslaughts on us. The first was the opposition from the Labour party, including the famous response from Roy Hattersley that “his Asians did not want Black Sections”, and the creeping use of the term Black and Asian.
I have no objection in principle or practice if Asian people want to describe themselves as Asian, and increasingly some will and must define themselves as Bangladeshi, Indian, Pakistani or Sri Lankan. It is inevitable that this should happen and it should not raise objections. Our sense of self and sense of place is important to all human beings. But the term Black and Asian is an insult to those of us who are being described not by our geography, but by our skin colour.
Black remains a political term that we should be encouraging, if it means being united by a common experience of racism and commitment to fighting that racism. The terms Black has a proud heritage, one we should wear with honour and pride. But if Black now means Caribbean or African, I reject it entirely. I am insulted and slighted by it, since it means, in the context of “Black and Asian” that I come from no place. Where on the map is Black? I know where Asia is, but Black is not a place. It speaks of no history and defines us only in terms of our skin colour.
Anyone familiar with Britain’s imperial history from the receiving end will be familiar with ‘divide and rule’. Some of us remember the distinctions the British tried to draw between those of us from the Caribbean, those from Continental Africa and those from the Diaspora. But for those not aware, most of the people from the Caribbean did not go there on package tours. They were either indentured labour from India or China, or enslaved African men and women.
My father was born in Africa and came to the UK during World War 2. Both he, and his children, experienced racism because of his heritage. He bequeathed a strong sense of pride in my heritage, all parts of it.
When I had the opportunity in 1987 to introduce Black History Month into the UK, following the advice of Ansel Wong, I did so to encourage an awareness and celebration of the African and Asian* contribution to British history. Black was inclusive then and it is still a political term. If there are people who feel that the struggle against discrimination is over, good for them. And if others insist that they have moved beyond the politics of solidarity, I cannot stop the tide. But I say this, please call me African**.
If, at the beginning of a new millennium, we need a new vocabulary to describe the rich ethnic mix of the UK, then let us begin it with inclusive consultation. Where, by the way will I find the race equality impact assessment done on the GLA on this renaming decision?
TAOBQ (The African Or Black Questions Addendum):
* The focus of Black History Month in the UK (BHM UK) in 1987 was solely about the global African, be they in Britain or India, and not about politically Black peoples. This is evidenced in the 1988-published book that documents BHM UK – ‘Our Story: A Handbook Of African History And Contemporary Issues’, edited by the two main London Strategic Policy Unit (LSPU) officers who shepherded BHM UK – Ansel Wong and Akyaaba Addai Sebo. It included an Introduction which made no mention of Asian or other Black peoples. That Introduction was signed off by London Strategic Policy Committee chair Linda Bellos and London Strategic Race Committee chair Narendra Makanji.
Furthermore, BHM UK was predicated on the African Jubilee Year Declaration – see ‘The Origins Of Black History – An Interview With Akyaaba Addai-Sebo’
And the Black History Month UK logo referenced 3 African links: 25th anniversary of the founding of the OAU (Organisation of African Unity), the 100th anniversary of the birth of pan-Africanist icon Marcus Garvey, and the 150th anniversary of the so-called emancipation of enslaved Africans in the British Caribbean.
** Linda Bellos has been advocating for the use of African to refer to people of African heritage, especially since the move to give Asians a separate status with terminologies such as ‘Black and Asian’. With Asians tied to the land mass known as Asia, Bellos asks “Where on the map is Black?” Or one could ask about Blackland or Blackistan?
Also, in her ‘The History of Black History Month’ article, Bellos says: “If I were in the same position again to start Black History Month I would call it African History Month not black…”
*** To find out about the solidarity of Africans and Asians within the Labour Party Black Sections of the 1980s and the shift within that solidarity in the 1990s, read former Black Section chair Marc Wadsworth’s ‘Celebrating Black Sections’ article.
Click to read ‘African History Month Discussion Paper 1’
Click to read Black History Month Discussion Paper 3
Click to read African History Month Discussion Paper 4
Click to read African History Month Discussion Paper 5.